Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 Since China’s economic development in the 1980s, Chinese media have become more diversified as they extend their reach throughout China through multiple transmissions, including satellites, wireless and wired systems. From the last official government reference in 2006, there are over 2,000 newspapers, over 8,000 magazines, 282 radio stations and 374 TV stations in China. By the end of 2004, there were 774 medium- and short-wave radio transmitting and relay stations, and 114.7 million households with access to cable television, covering 94.1 and 95.3 percent of the population, respectively (China.org.cn, 2006).

Comment Icon0 While the mass media in China, such as newspapers, radio and television, have traditionally operated under the PRC’s broad regulatory policies, Internet content providers face a more meticulous level of regulation from the government. In September 2000, State Council Order No. 292 issued the first content restrictions for Internet content providers, which mandated that China-based websites could not link to overseas news websites or carry news from overseas media without separate approval. Furthermore, only “licensed print publishers” would have the authority to bring out news online, while non-licensed websites that wish to broadcast news may only publish information already released publicly by other news media. Legally speaking, these sites would need to obtain approval from state information offices and from the State Council Information Agency.

Comment Icon0 In addition, Article 12 of State Council Order No. 292 mentioned: “Content providers are responsible for ensuring the legality of any information disseminated through their services”. Article 14 gives Chinese officials full access to any kind of sensitive information they wish: “ […] an IIS provider must keep a copy of its records for 60 days and furnish them to the relevant state authorities on demand in accordance to the law.” Finally, Article 15 defines what information must be restricted: “IIS providers shall not produce, reproduce, release, or disseminate information that: […] endangers national security, […] is detrimental to the honor of the state, […] undermines social stability, the state’s policy towards religion, […] other information prohibited by the law or administrative regulations” (CECC, 2006).

Comment Icon0 As evidence of China’s comparatively tough regulation on online media over traditional mass media, Reporters Without Borders worldwide statistics showed that China has the highest number of journalists (30) imprisoned, yet there were more cyberdissidents (49) suffering a similar fate (Reporters Without Borders, 2009b). This explains why Reporters Without Borders still ranks China as having a “very serious situation” in terms of press freedom. Ambiguous legal cases have included the arrest of freelance reporter Lu Gengsong, who was sentenced to four years in prison in February 2008 on charges of “inciting subversion” for stories he had written for overseas websites on corruption and the trial of a Chinese human rights activist. To understand why the Internet as a medium is of great concern to governments of both closed and opened societies, one has to consider how the Internet logistically compares with traditional mass media, and how it subsequently transforms the way societies communicate. It started in the 1960s, when pioneering researcher Paul Baran envisioned a communications network that would survive a major enemy’s attack.


Figure 3: Centralized, decentralized and distributed networks (Baran, 1964)

Comment Icon0 As seen in Figure 3, the sketch shows three different network topologies described in Baran’s RAND Memorandum “On Distributed Communications: 1. Introduction to Distributed Communications Network” (August 1964). The distributed network structure offered the best survivability, and eventually formed the basic concept of how the original ARPANET, and the rest of the Internet, was conceived. The traditional mass media, such as newspapers, television and radio, is represented by the centralized model with the media outlet broadcasting to a passive audience. The Internet is realistically a hybrid of decentralized and distributed models, where personal computers are interconnected, information flow is bi-directional and between active nodes. Between network topologies, the difference in architecture also changes how users are involved with the media. While traditional mass media are mostly consumed passively, the Internet and its distributed network technically allow the audience to participate in the media, by consuming and producing media of their own. This changes the power distribution of the network, since centrality and control are spread over a larger web of nodes in the distributed model.

Comment Icon0 The introduction of the Internet into China dramatically changed the way the press is perceived. Dr. Li Xiguang, director at Tsinghua University’s Center for International Communications Studies, summarized how traditional media in China now felt restricted by geographic region, audience reach, licensing system, high cost of market entry, high delivery costs, unreliability of newspaper and magazine mailing, as well as how one-way communication created passive audiences. In contrast, he highlighted how the World Wide Web allowed Chinese-produced content to be unrestricted by geography, have unlimited audience reach, freedom from license requirement under electronic publications, low cost of market entry, and most importantly, a system designed for two-way communication (Li, 2002).

Comment Icon0 The bi-directional as well as in-between communication of networked computers on the Internet is mirrored in the way their users interact with one another as well. Understandably, the lack of a central point of control means that the network intrinsically disrupts the ability of any authority to have absolute power over the architecture. News would spread quickly from online news sources, users would be able to share their opinions about the news with the publisher, as well as communicate among themselves. This avenue for active user participation runs in stark contrast with China’s longstanding, indoctrination-oriented propaganda system. For decades, political and technological limitations have prevented the Chinese media from ever realizing any opportunity for public discussion. Similarly, when the news gatekeepers no longer consider an item to be of importance, they have the majority stake at slipping it off the public agenda (McCombs, Maxwell, & Shaw, 1972). With the advent of Internet-based communication tools, such as email, instant messaging and social networking, the Chinese citizens suddenly have multiple channels for the free flow of information, with the natural ability to decide what the public agenda is about and how long it should be maintained for.

Comment Icon0 The Internet brings about new realms of social affordances to the Chinese, including how the users can communicate anonymously, greater freedom of expression, and above all, the sharing of information that traditional media might not publish. Information that is shared online is chiefly driven by reader interest, and less swayed by commercial or political agenda. Since the Internet provides Chinese citizens with free and anonymous means for exchanging information, online chatrooms are sometimes described as dianzi dazibao, or electronic versions of the “big-character posters” that were used to galvanize public opinion during the Cultural Revolution (Huang, 1999).

Comment Icon0 Prior to the Internet, authoritarian governments had a stranglehold on information dissemination, as well as the uncontested ability to broadcast propaganda to remind citizens of their dominance. Today, this strength is challenged as these governments seek to adopt the Internet for commercial gains, yet struggle to regulate it with their heavy hand of societal control. The Chinese Communist Party could have maintained absolute control by ‘whitelisting’ Internet access to pre-approved web services, but that would have fallen short through inefficiency due to the exponential growth of commerce and information services on the Internet. The PRC would not be able to live up to its commitment to liberalize the economy to foreign investment and trade by denying access to a vastly growing international source of information. This is why elaborate censorship schemes, as well as a combination of relevant economic, legal and political policies, were developed to manage information on a more ad hoc basis to allow for maximum efficiency.

Chapter 2.2.1 – Censorship of Mass Media vs Internet Media

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